A Revealing New Look at Whitney Houston

A new documentary explores the full range of the singer's artistry—the full-throated pop and the smooth R&B—and, in turn, how it shaped her balancing act of a life.
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Whitney Houston at the Songwriters Hall of Fame 32nd Annual Awards in New York City on June 14th, 2001.

Whitney Houston at the Songwriters Hall of Fame 32nd Annual Awards in New York City on June 14th, 2001.

"How Will I Know" isn't Whitney Houston's most popular song, but it's the one that changed everything. Released in 1985 as the third single from her self-titled debut album, the song brought her crossover appeal, not least thanks to the music video, in which Houston bops around a kaleidoscope-like maze while wearing a metallic dress and a big bow atop even bigger hair (remember: the '80s). On its release more than 30 years ago, the clip became one of the first videos by a black American woman to receive heavy rotation on MTV. Given its immediately relatable lyric of longing—the anxiety that looms whenever one is too devoted—the track's success isn't hard to understand. "How will I know if he really loves me?" Houston sings on the chorus, while the backing vocals extend a warning: "Love can be deceiving."

The central tension of "How Will I Know"—the hapless plea just to be seen—might come to mind, in a grimly prophetic way, to viewers of Whitney: Can I Be Me, the new documentary about Houston. In the film, directors Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal explore the crushing identity crisis Houston faced, between honoring her personal relationships and honoring her craft; between the "unpolished" teenager from Newark, New Jersey, and the shimmery pop-R&B chanteuse. And, by the end, viewers are left with a solemn look at a superstar the likes of whom the world isn't likely to see, or hear, again.

Can I Be Me makes clear that Houston's identity was warped by handlers from the start. "The company had this image in mind that they were going to create a pop icon—an artist that was accepted by the masses, translating to white America," Kenneth Reynolds, a former Arista Records marketing executive, says in the film. "Her music was deliberately pop. Anything that was too black-sounding was sent back to the studio." The aggressive economics of the music industry would, in a matter of only a few years, produce a litany of No. 1 hits for Houston, including 1987's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)," which in 1988 nabbed her the Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

That calculus required a corrosive self-effacement, with Houston positioned as a seemingly race-less "American princess" who had mastered white America's pop game. But what happened to the woman—known lovingly in her inner circle as "Nippy"—who was born in Newark three years before a major race riot? The question wasn't lost on listeners, and the affection that had so rapidly propelled Houston to fame could suddenly turn to scorn, particularly when it came to public scrutiny of her race. At the Soul Train Music Awards in 1989, members of the audience booed Houston when her name was called for a nomination; even to many blacks, Houston's blackness seemed contrived, and she was accused of having "sold out." (In a 1990 Essence magazine profile, the singer defended her career choices. "Longevity—that's what it's all about. If you're gonna have a long career, there's a certain way to do it, and I did it that way. I'm not ashamed of it," Houston said.) In response, on her third album, 1990's I'm Your Baby Tonight, Houston used her peerless pipes in service of a decidedly more R&B sound.

There also was the intrigue centered around Houston's romantic relationships. In 1992, she married R&B "bad boy" Bobby Brown. The film suggests that Houston's drug use began years before she met Brown, but, by the late '90s, the two's addiction-addled relationship had become one of co-dependence, and it was often played up in public as a sort of sizzle reel of scandal. ("Crack is whack!" Houston said in an infamous 2002 interview with Diane Sawyer.) In addition, Houston was allegedly in love with her best friend Robyn Crawford, a point of conversation that stalked Houston's career. Yet according to Houston's entourage, there was no space in the all-American darling's image to be queer, and, in 2000, Crawford quit Houston's company.

For all that, though, the takeaway of Can I Be Me isn't Houston's pain, or the way her voice tragically eroded in the final years before her death, in 2012. The film guides viewers through the singer's struggles, and by the end we better understand her brilliance and her struggle. (As I was writing this story, I texted my mom—a Houston acolyte if there ever was one—to ask her if she still has the Houston audiocassettes I'd seen in her car throughout the 1990s. "I sure do," she wrote back.) And while the world never seemed content with the knottiness of Houston's identity, she was nonetheless pioneering. She helped to make it possible for present-day black female artists to lean more honestly, and fully, into their own personal and public vulnerability. "You gotta know who you are before you step into this business," Houston reflected in a 1995 interview. "Because if you're trying to find it, you'll probably wind up being somebody else that you probably don't even like." She was insecure, and maybe lonely, but she was also empowered, purposeful, and self-aware.

Can I Be Me offers heartfelt insight into the full range of Houston's artistry—the full-throated pop and the smooth R&B—and, in turn, how it shaped the singer's balancing act of a life. The film, in that, affords a re-appraisal that allows Houston to be herself—her truest self.

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